5. The Tales of Ba Sing Se

Comprised of six slice-of-life vignettes focusing on a different character, “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” is an unusual little episode. There are no stakes, no cities to be saved: instead it’s just a look at a day in the lives of Aang, Toph, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Iroh, and even little Momo. Katara and Toph bond during a spa day, Sokka learns how write haikus, Zuko goes on a date, Aang builds a zoo, and Momo goes on a journey searching for his long-missing buddy Appa. But while most of these segments are full lighthearted character moments and, in Sokka’s case, comedy showcases, “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” has one big emotional wallop in it that, to this day, will still bring a tear to most fans’ eyes. That is the story of Uncle Iroh, who wanders around Ba Sing Se gently helping everyone who crosses his path, from a crying child to a would-be mugger. But after spending the day acting as the wise old guardian we have long known him to be, Iroh’s wanderings take him to the top of a hill at sunset, where he sets up an altar for his son on the anniversary of his death. Iroh shakily sings the same song, “Leaves from the Vine,” which he had played for the crying boy, and the segment ends with a dedication to Mako, the first voice of Iroh who had passed away.

4. The Avatar and the Fire Lord

Yet another Aang and Zuko double whammy, “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” brings the pair’s dual arcs together in an epic flashback-heavy episode that dives into the relationship between Avatar Roku, Aang’s predecessor, and Fire Lord Sozin, Zuko’s great-grandfather. While Aang receives a vision from Roku that takes the young Avatar through his predecessor’s life, Zuko is lead to a recorded history of Fire Lord Sozin’s childhood. They each learn about the close friendship between Avatar Rokue and Fire Lord Sozin, and their eventual falling out after Sozin aspires to expand the Fire Nation at the expense of the other nations. “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” is grand, mythic stuff that manages to condense two lifetimes worth of stories into a half-hour, while dropping the groundbreaking revelation that Zuko’s maternal great-grandfather was none other than Avatar Roku. Zuko’s lifelong struggle between good and evil was the legacy of his two great-grandfather’s own battles, Iroh explains to him, and it’s up to him to decide what to do with that legacy.

3. The Siege of the North Part 2

Like the Scouring of the Shire toward the end of The Hobbit, the final part of “The Siege of the North” gives a surprisingly realistic edge to what until then had been an entertaining children’s story. This is a war story, Avatar: The Last Airbender reminds us, in all of its sacrifice, tragedy, and loss. The season 1 finale of the series, “The Siege of the North” is the culmination of all the heart, empathy, and bold storytelling that Avatar: The Last Airbender had to offer up to that point, and a taste of the darkness that was yet to come. While Aang is in the spirit world confronting the dangerous Koh the Face-Stealer (still one of the creepiest designs the show has given us), Zuko is having his first major crisis of conscience, holed up in a bitterly freezing cave where he has escaped with the Avatar’s body. Meanwhile, Zhao has upset the balance of the world by killing the moon spirit, which can only be fixed with the sacrifice of Princess Yue, to Sokka’s dismay. Full of awe-inspiring setpieces and big-hearted storytelling, “The Siege of the North” is Avatar: The Last Airbender at its best: moving and thrilling, but ending with a victory that tastes more bitter than sweet.

2. Sozin’s Comet Part 3: Inferno

Who can forget Azula’s spectacular unraveling at the hands of her own paranoia? After the betrayal of her only friends Ty Lee and Mai — who abandon her after getting fed up with her scheming — Azula descends into insanity in one of the show’s most disturbing and tragic arcs befitting one of the best female villains on television. As she awaits her coronation as the new Fire Lord, Azula becomes convinced that her servants are trying to kill her and is plagued by visions of her mother, who pities the ruthless warrior she’s become. It’s an eye-opening depiction of a formerly unsympathetic character, as the episode slowly unveils the scared, disturbed girl underneath the cold mask — a mask that is finally beginning to crack and slip. The episode climaxes in the most tragically beautiful fight sequence of the series, as Zuko and Katara arrive to take her down. She and Zuko engage in an Agni Kai, the term for the one-on-one duels in the Fire Nation, in a sad battle between a brother and sister who may have loved each other once. Buoyed by Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn’s mournful orchestral score and the jaw-droppingly vibrant animation, the battle would be enough to make “Sozin’s Comet Part 3: Inferno” one of the top 5 episodes of the series, but we’re also treated to action-packed with Suki, Sokka, and Toph, as they single-handedly bring down a battalion of Fire Nation airships.

1. Zuko Alone

“Zuko Alone” is a perfect little half-hour of television, granting a novel’s worth of character development to our favorite antihero within the frame of a neo-Western. The episode follows Zuko after he has parted ways with Iroh in an attempt to make it on his own as the disgraced outcast prince of the Fire Nation. He runs into a poor boy being terrorized by Earth Kingdom military thugs and — in an uncharacteristic moment of chivalry — decides to help him and the village under the sway of the brutal soldiers. What follows is your classic antihero grappling with identity, the horrors of war and poverty, intercut with flashbacks to Zuko’s unhappy upbringing alongside his psychotic sister. It’s a classic “ronin” story in the style of Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars, but more than cinematic homage, “Zuko Alone” is a spectacular piece of character work that shows Zuko struggling with his tortured past while reckoning with the horrors of war. And yet, while it shows Zuko in a new light and gives the disgraced prince a chance to try to do good by the repressed villagers, “Zuko Alone” ends on a bitter note, with his good deeds brushed aside by the very people he was trying to help.

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